New Forms of Communication and the Public Mission of Economics: Overcoming the Great Disconnect

Mark Thoma, University of Oregon

Economics has a long history of engagement on important public policy issues, and its early history was driven in large part by the desire to answer important public policy questions. However, ties between academic economists and the public, the press, policymakers, and economists in business and government have declined in recent decades.{{1}} This has reduced the quality of the public dialogue on important policy issues and this, in turn, has made it easier for groups with a political agenda to use false and misleading claims to influence policy in their favor.{{2}} In addition, as the ties between academic economists and the practitioners who use the models and techniques they produce have diminished, the questions economists ask have drifted away from the questions of most interest to society. To a large extent, economics has become separated from its real world users and applications. Fortunately, however, the “Great Disconnect”{{3}} with the non-academic community is being reversed with the development of new information technology. Economics blogs in particular have played a key role in turning things around.

The Great Disconnect: Why Did Economics Retreat from Its Public Mission?

Why did economics retreat from its traditional public role?{{4}} This section explores potential answers to this question, beginning with the influence of the desire to become more scientific. However, it’s important to note that even though the ties to the public have weakened in recent decades, economists remain active on public policy issues. Michael Bernstein explains:

“The ‘Reagan Revolution’ provided the turning-point. […] What came subsequently was the disengagement […], a kind of smug assurance that economics matters for the making of public policy coupled with a resolute unwillingness to participate in the genuine, open and democratic disputation that was the essence of the ‘New Economics’ of the post World War II period. […]

[E]conomists today enjoy great amounts of power and influence, even prestige in some circles. But they do so in private, and increasingly in silence. To use the trope I deployed in my book – they have become more ‘privy councillors to private wealth’ than public servants to elected officials. It is then in this respect that they are being ignored — not by the private sector nor by the elite officials of the distinct financial and non-governmental organizations noted above, but rather by the public.”{{5}}

I share Bernstein’s view that although academic economists remain influential in policy circles, the profession’s ties to the public discourse have weakened, and this section explores why that may have occurred.{{6}}

But before moving to the reasons for the disconnect, I should note that my view differs from Ben Fine and Dimitris Milonakis.{{7}} As explained by Geoffrey Hodgson, these authors trace the disconnect to the profession’s turn from “classical and Marxian political economy” to marginalism in the 1870s. However, Keynes and Friedman provide two counterexamples to this thesis – they were certainly engaged with the public – and I view the profession’s turn toward mathematical formalism in recent decades as the more fundamental cause of its disconnect with the public.{{8}} In addition, Bernstein supports this view with his examples of the ‘New Economics’ between the end of World War II and the Reagan years.

Furthermore, I should note that while formalism has its limits and economists should be open to other modes of analysis, I don’t agree with Tony Lawson and others that abandoning mathematical formalism is the key to reconnecting with public issues,{{9}} or with Fine and Milonakis who say that the “salvation of economics lies in reversing the ‘marginalist revolution.’“{{10}} It’s not formalism per se that is the problem, it’s the questions that we ask. That is, mathematics is a tool for economic analysis; it is not the analysis itself. If we ask poor questions and build irrelevant models, as we have done to a large extent in recent years, then the tools are wasted. But when we ask the correct questions and bring these tools along, they can be very helpful in ensuring that the analysis is logical, internally consistent, and stated in a common language. We can certainly debate whether all questions can be handled with this mode of analysis – my view is that some questions cannot be effectively answered with these tools and techniques – but that doesn’t imply they are useless in other contexts.

What is needed is a way to translate these highly formal models into understandable, every day terms, to interpret what these mathematical models say, to explain the important ways in which they provide insight, and so on.{{11}} That’s where blogs come in, and as emphasized by Henry Farrell and John Sides when they discuss similar issues in political science, “Blogs not only help political scientists participate actively in public debate, but also connect the academic discourse among political scientists with the conversation in the public sphere.”{{12}} Instead of dropping marginalism and formalism as a means of reconnecting with the public sphere, blogs provide a window into economics that allows the public to understand the important issues without necessarily understanding the technical apparatus that justifies the conclusions.

I believe mathematical formalism is the most important factor in explaining the Great Disconnect,{{13}} but it is not the only factor at work. The remainder of this section lists and discusses the factors I believe contributed to the withdrawal of economists from the public sphere.

Mathematics and the Desire to be a Scientific Discipline

While mathematical formalism has advanced the analytical capabilities of economics, the diminished connections between academic economists and the outside world can be traced in large part to the desire to make economics a science. This desire has a long history,{{14}} and the more recent push is due in no small part to Milton Friedman’s Methodology of Positive Economics and the subsequent traditions of the Chicago School. A big part of the attempt to become more scientific was to make the discipline mathematical.

This helped to clarify the assumptions behind the models we use, to force the models to be internally consistent, and to express ideas in a common language. But, and Michael Bernstein makes this point as well,{{15}} as the discipline became more and more mathematical – the language we speak is increasingly symbolic rather than verbal – it became less accessible to outsiders. The language changed, the models were highly abstract, and it is now hard, if not impossible for an untrained outsider to read academic papers and know what questions were being asked, why they were important, and how they had been answered. Reading the introduction and conclusion might give you some idea of what the main point of the paper was, but for the most part you need be an expert to really understand the degree to which a particular paper contributed to the literature.{{16}} Thus, the work of economists lost important connections to the outside world. And as those connections dropped away, it was easier for the discipline to drift away from the questions of most interest to society, and for other voices – some with their own agendas – to fill the void.

Positive and Normative Economics

Economists distinguish between positive and normative analysis, and part of the push within the profession to become more scientific involved focusing on positive economics.{{17}} The result of this push was  that economists have become less willing to take sides in public debates, and more importantly unwilling to wade into public debates when doing so can be perceived as supporting one side over the other. To do so – to actually bring academic knowledge to bear on a piece of legislation or a proposed policy – risks being perceived as stepping over the normative line and incurring the disapproval, tacit or explicit, of colleagues. I don’t mean to imply that this stopped everyone from commenting on proposed policies, it didn’t, but it did inhibit discussion and it ceded ground to all sorts of “charlatans and cranks.”{{18}} Unlike the prevailing perception of the traditionalists, entering public discourse does not necessarily mean abandoning professional standards. In any case, the move towards insularity and the void it left in the public sphere was not a neutral action, but an implicit normative choice.

Sociological Factors

I believe that the sociology within the profession played a role as well, and that this can also be traced, in part, to the desire to become a science.

As economics has become increasingly mathematical and theoretical, it has also become more cliquish. There are theorists who see themselves at the top of the heap – and their attitude shows it – and there are empiricists and applied economists who are bit further down the list. Even further down in the pecking order are government and business economists. They are largely viewed by academics – theorists in particular – as data grubbers and forecasters with nothing much to offer higher minded academics. As I’ll discuss later, I think this is a mistake, but the increasingly haughty attitude of the mathematical theorists and of academics more generally has helped to cement and widen the divide between those who are inside and those who are outside of the academic community.{{19}}

Interest in Different Questions

The fact that those inside and outside of academics are interested in different questions may have also play a role in severing the ties of academics to the outside world.

Economics can be used for two things, to understand how the world works and to predict what will happen in the future, i.e. to produce forecasts. To a large extent, academic economists focus on discovering how the economic world works. For example, most of their econometric work is designed to test hypotheses and determine which model of the world is correct. Forecasting is not emphasized. However, economists in business and government are mainly interested in predicting the future of the economy, and their models are designed to forecast optimally rather than to test theoretical hypotheses.{{20}}

Thus, there is a divide that results from the different ways in which the two communities use economic models, and this discourages communication. That’s not to say that the lines are solid – there are theorists outside of academia and forecasters within – but it does limit the interaction between the two groups. Academics don’t believe they have much to learn from business and government economists,{{21}} and that sentiment has increased as the profession has turned to more formal, mathematical models. But as I’ll argue below, blogs are changing this attitude and the academics will be improved as a result.

The Costs of Disengagement

For all of these reasons, economics lost ties to the public discourse leaving room for all sorts of “charlatans and cranks” to fill the void. In doing so, academics ceded important ground to think tanks aligned with one party or the other, to self-appointed economic experts, to business economists maximizing profit rather than public knowledge, and to a media that doesn’t always comprehend the economics that underlie a particular issue. Even in cases where there actually was fairly wide agreement among academic economists about a particular policy proposal, the public debate in the media did not convey that economists were largely united on the issue.

This relates to Steve Walt’s description – in this forum – of the two ways that a discipline can abandon its public mission. Academics can become insular, a closed group that mostly talks to itself, or they can become beholden to powerful outside interests.  He uses the phrase “the Scylla of hyper-professionalized irrelevance and the Charybdis of corrupt opportunism” to characterize this distinction.

Which of the two happened in economics? As described above, when academics retreated from the public sphere, powerful interests were able to step in and influence the public dialogue through economists at think tanks and other means.  There were certainly some economists within academia who supported these efforts, but these outside influences were important conduits for special interest politics.  Thus, I view insularity and the void it left in the public sphere rather than subservience to powerful interests within the profession as the more important problem.

There is another cost of disengagement as well. As academic economists severed ties with those who apply economic models to real world problems, the feedback from the users of models to those in academics who create them diminished. Because of this, the questions that academic economists ask drifted away from the questions that the users of the models need to have answered. Thus, lack of communication between the creators and users of economic models and knowledge has lead to economists pursuing a research agenda that fits the interests of insiders, but does not pay enough attention to the questions that are the most important to society more generally. This is an important element of the Great Disconnect.

But blogs and other new forms of communication are changing this, and the Great Reconnect that is now underway is reengaging academic economists with the public.

A Renewed Public Mission in Economics

The development of information technology in recent years has renewed the connections between the academic economists and the world outside the ivory towers.{{22}} While social media such as Twitter and Facebook have played a role in this development, particularly in spreading and magnifying information, in economics it has been blogs that have driven the renewed public dialogue. Thus, blogs will be the focus of the discussion that follows.{{23}}

For economists, the rise of economics blogs – which has been quite substantial both inside and outside the academic community – can be explained using our favored and simplest construction, supply and demand.

The demand for the information that blogs offer was always present, but the cost of obtaining the information was prohibitively high. If a reporter or policymaker could quickly read the views of many prominent economists on a particular topic through a few clicks on the computer, i.e. at very low cost except for the time involved, they would be likely to do so – same for members of the business community trying to get a read on the economy so they can forecast sales, and so on. For policymakers, the ability to receive near instant feedback on policy proposals and thus learn about positives and negatives they may have overlooked before the policy is finalized would have been valuable. But prior to blogs, there was no way to quickly find and access this information at a reasonable cost.

However, as digital communications technology developed the cost of supplying this information fell dramatically, and as the econoblogosphere began to develop the ties between academics, the press, policymakers, and the public developed along with it.{{24}}

The Growth of Economics Blogs

Six or seven years ago there were enough economics blogs in existence to identify it as a class by itself, but the set of actual academics with blogs was quite small.{{25}} Today, being an academic who contributes to a blog or maintains one of their own is quite common. There is no shortage of views of academic economists about the important issues of the day, and they are available as never before to answer questions from the press and the general public.

Though the growth of economics blogs in recent years has been substantial, the precise numbers are difficult to track over time.{{26}} But there are still ways to mark the growth. For example, six or seven years ago most newspapers and magazines such as the NY Times, Washington Post, WSJ, and the Atlantic, did not have economics blogs. Today it would be unusual for these news outlets not to have a blog, and some have more than one blog devoted to economics and business. Paul Krugman’s blog at the NY Times is immensely popular and influential. In addition, as an indication of the value of these blogs, it is now possible to make a living as an economics blogger.{{27}} Finally, think tanks such as the CBPP, Brookings, EPI, CEPR, CATO, The Tax Foundation, etc. didn’t have economics blogs at that time either, at least not universally, but now they do.

Interestingly, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, economics blogs have grown faster than blogging in other disciplines. For example, as Farrell and Sides point out, political science blogs “are still overshadowed by the economics blogosphere, where … they are beginning to have a real and substantial effect on broader discussion.”{{28}} Whether this will continue to be the case in the future is unknown, but if other disciplines do catch up it will likely be because they enter blogging in greater numbers rather than a fall-off in the participation of economists in the blogosphere. Economics blogs are here to stay.

The Changing View of Blogs within Economics

One of the important factors in allowing the economics blogoshere to grow, and in the process begin to establish ties with those outside of academia, is the change in how blogs are viewed within the profession and by colleagues within economics departments. As little as five years ago, for example, it was a negative mark for an academic economist to be a blogger. Bloggers were viewed as less than serious, mostly ranting about politics, movies, the subway ride home, and so on when they ought to be conducting basic research. The members of the academic community in economics were aloof and separate, and for the most part unwilling to lower themselves into the realm of pajama clad bloggers.{{29}}

What caused the attitude to change to the extent that now, even places like the NY Fed have a blog that educates, analyzes policy, presents research findings, and comments on important policy issues? A big factor was that several well-known, serious researchers began their own blogs.  When Greg Mankiw (Harvard) and Jim Hamilton (UCSD) started blogging, and when others like them, e.g. Justin Wolfers (University of Pennsylvania) followed people began to take note. More importantly, they started to think they might learn something instead of just hearing a rant against this or that political foe, or whatever happened to be on the blogger’s mind. That ranting was still there, and Mankiw was in for an awakening that would eventually lead him to turn off comments, but as the big names began entering the blogosphere and as related spaces like Vox EU – essentially a blog where researchers summarize their findings in accessible terms – began to emerge the acceptability of blogging changed. Research was still the currency of the profession, but blogging was no longer a negative mark for an academic – and was perhaps even turning into a positive in some cases.

One factor in the increased acceptance of blogs was the exposure and advertising it gave a Department and the Institution. However, even though attitudes have changed, and are likely to evolve further, blogging still has drawbacks and academics who have not yet received tenure are wise to steer clear of it. Some senior faculty will see it as time that could have been spent on research. But even so, when untenured faculty blog anyway, it’s not the stigma it once was.

However, it would be wrong to assert that all controversy and resistance to economics blogs has eased in the academic community. Blogs have evolved as a place where academic economists can actually bring their knowledge to bear on pressing public issues. That creates great consternation for traditionalists who think bloggers sully the professional reputation of economists when they allegedly abandon the positive-normative distinctions – as if entering public discourse necessarily means abandoning professional standards. They believe that economists should limit themselves to interpretation of theoretical research and to positive analysis. But that’s another argument – for our purposes the willingness of economists to engage in public debate has certainly opened up the conversation with outsiders.

Blogs Enhance the Connections between Academic Economists, the Public, Policymakers, the Press, and Other Academic Disciplines

How have new forms of communication changed the interactions between academics and the outside world?

Ties to the public

More than ever before, the public has direct access to the thoughts of academic economists. On most any important economic topic in the news, it’s possible to find scores of economists writing about it. The arguments for and against a proposal as well as the economics are easy to find, and it is generally written in non-technical language. In addition, as Farrell and Sides note, “Blogs not only help political scientists participate actively in public debate, but also connect the academic discourse among political scientists with the conversation in the public sphere.” And, importantly, “interlocutors in public debate–whether journalists, politicians or policy specialists–… must be able to find relevant political science research and, in many cases, have it explained in ordinary language or through simple but striking graphical presentations of quantitative data.”{{30}}

In economics this is clearly happening. There are discussions of the latest research in non-technical language accessible to non-specialists (there are technical discussions among economists as well). In addition, there is access to educational materials, even college classroom instruction on YouTube and other video outlets along with supporting course materials. Thus, there is an abundance of analysis, research, and educational materials available to anyone who cares to look for them.

Finally, blogs have increased the visibility of economists and signaled a willingness to engage with the public, and this has led to many more talks to local groups in the community.{{31}}

Ties to the press

Because of blogs, the number of economists available to journalists has expanded considerably, and journalists are better able to find experts in the particular areas they are writing about. One of the major problems journalists faced in the past was knowing who to call. Who is knowledgeable on a particular issue, who will actually talk to the press, who will say things in an intelligible, straightforward manner rather than technical jargon, and who will give a straight answer instead of a political pitch?{{32}}

For high profile blogs, another connection to the press comes from conferences where bloggers are invited more as a press representative than an economist (though the economics expertise is part of the reason for the invitations).{{33}} In these cases, bloggers are in the press pools with business journalists and that allows for a level of interaction that would not otherwise occur. Further, there are blogger’s conferences that bring reporters who also write on blogs at major publications together with academic bloggers, and these gatherings create new connections and new ways in which information can be shared.{{34}}

There is a perhaps less obvious way in which blogs have increased connections to the press. Because of blogs, professors are more likely to talk to the press than they were before. There are two reasons for this. First, when you have your own blog and the ability to respond in a public forum, you are much, much less worried about being misquoted – a key fear that prevents academics from talking to the press. The cost to your reputation if you are misquoted in the press is much larger than any benefit from an accurate quote in the paper, and it makes academics reluctant to weigh in at all. However, on most topics a blogger will have a long and well known record of their views. If a newspaper story says something different, then pointing to past writings makes it easy to correct the story in a way that doesn’t look like backtracking.

Second, it’s helpful to know what everyone else is saying about a topic before speaking to the press. It’s possible to overlook something or to get the economics wrong. Knowing what your colleagues are saying about an issue and that they think the same as you – or if they differ, you understand why and believe your analysis is better – makes you much less worried that colleagues will read your quotes and wonder how you could have possibly come to such a silly conclusion.

There is a danger of groupthink in this approach – if everyone coordinates on a particular expert and adopts that analysis, it will appear there are many independent views when in fact there is only one and everyone else is simply and lazily signing on to it. However, the joke about economists is generally that we have too many opinions rather than too few, and I don’t think this is a big worry.

Connections to Policymakers

Connections between policymakers and academic economists have always been present, but blogs have increased the connections substantially. For example, there are daily lists of blog posts from economists that circulate at the Treasury and the Fed,{{35}} and I presume other agencies as well, and blogs are read by Senators, Congressional Representatives, and their staffs.{{36}} This gives policymakers access to a wider array of views than ever before, including the analytic underpinnings, and it also allows new ideas to percolate up from academic blogs to policy proposals.

Connections to Other Disciplines

One of the benefits of blogging that often goes unrecognized is the ties it forges with other disciplines. These aren’t necessarily ties to the non-academic world, at least not in every case, but economics bloggers come into contact with bloggers from political science, law, sociology and other disciplines. These connections can be valuable. For example, when new regulatory initiatives were being proposed, having access to blogs written by Wall Street lawyers as well as lawyers within academia was very helpful in clarifying the legal issues.

Connections to Business and Government Economists

Finally, blogs have connected academic economists to economists in business and government. As I noted earlier, academic economists have not interacted much with business and government economists because they didn’t think they had much to learn from them. They were interested in different issues, used models in different ways, and so on. But as academic bloggers have started to interact with business and government economists, they are finding that they have quite a bit to offer. For example, business economists – particularly those in the financial industry – knew much more about the institutional features of markets that became problematic during the financial meltdown. This gave them the ability to foresee problems with particular regulatory responses that weren’t always evident to the academics who do not participate in these markets on a daily basis. In addition, because of their strong interest in forecasts, they are often better at interpreting the latest data and what it means for the future of the economy.

Blogs are Changing How Economics is Practiced

This section discusses how blogs are forcing economists to confront questions in real-time rather than the more usual retrospective approach, how blogs are changing the questions economists ask, and the effect of blogs on classroom teaching.

Real-Time Analysis and Policy Prescriptions

Economic research is largely backward looking. After the fact – when all of the data has been collected and the revisions to the data are complete – economists examine data on, say, a financial crisis, and then figure out what caused the economy to become so sick. Once the cause has been determined, which may involve the construction of new theoretical frameworks, they tell us how to avoid it happening again, i.e. the particular set of policies that would have prevented or attenuated the damage.

But the internet and blogs are changing what we do, and to some extent we now act like emergency room physicians rather than pathologists who have the time to carefully examine data from tests, etc., determine what went wrong, and then recommend how to avoid problems in the future. When the financial crisis hit so unexpectedly, it was like a patient showed up at the emergency room very sick and in need of immediate diagnosis and care. We had to reach into our bag of macroeconomic models, choose the one that was correct for this question, and then use it to both diagnose the problems and prescribe policies to fix them. There was no time for a careful retrospective analysis that patiently determined the cause and then went to work on the potential policy responses.

That turned out to be much harder than expected. Our models and cures are not designed for that type of use. What data should we look at to make an immediate diagnosis? What tests should we conduct to give us data on what is wrong with the economy?{{37}} If we aren’t sure what the cause is but immediate action is needed to save the economy from getting very sick, what is the equivalent of using broad spectrum antibiotics and other drugs to attack unknown problems? The development of blogs puts economists in real-time contact with the public, press, and policymakers, and when a crisis hits, traffic spikes as people come looking for answers.{{38}}

Blogs are a start to solving the problem of real-time analysis, but we need to do a much better job than we are doing now at providing immediate answers when they are needed. If Lehman is failing and the financial sector is going down with it, or if Europe is in trouble, we need to know what to do right now, it won’t help to figure that out months from now and then publish the findings in a journal article. That means the discipline has to adjust from being backward looking pathologists with plenty of time to determine causes and cures to an emergency room mode where we can offer immediate advice. Blogs are an integral part of that process.

The Effect of Blogs on the Questions Economists Ask

There’s another important aspect of the new connections to the outside world, how it will change economics. Let me quote from my recent op-ed on how academic economics would benefit from increased interaction with those outside of academia:

“How much confidence would you have in the medical profession if the teaching faculty in medical schools had very little experience actually treating patients, and very little connection to – even a lack of respect for – the practitioners in the field? Would your confidence be improved if medical research had little to do with the questions that are important to the doctors trying to serve patients?

Unfortunately, that’s a pretty good description of how economics has been practiced. The questions academic economists are trying to answer have little connection to the problems faced by business economists trying to help their firms make good, profitable decisions (and vice-versa). And though academics pay some attention to government policy, particularly Federal Reserve policy, addressing the problems faced by government economists trying to help policymakers make the best possible choices is not the main focus of this research.”

And, further:

“The failure of academic economists to predict the crisis shows just how costly such insularity and arrogance can be. The patient (the economy) didn’t need to have a heart attack (financial meltdown), because even though the signs were there, the academic community had little interest in learning how to read them, let alone in developing early warning and intervention strategies for bubbles and other problems. […]

The medical profession would do much worse without connections between the practitioners in the field and the how-it-works types in the labs. The questions researchers ask, for example, are shaped by the needs of the practitioners trying to prevent and cure illness. What types of tests can doctors do in their offices and labs to quickly and reliably indicate the current health of a patient and to forecast future health problems? In economics, if reliable tests for bubbles had been available to business economists, that could have saved the economy from considerable losses.”{{39}}

The point I’m making is that connections between academics and the consumers of their work can help to shape and improve the questions that economists ask and to focus on the questions that are of the most value to society. For example, prior to the crisis policymakers, investors, and others in the private sector were asking if there was a housing bubble or not. However, not only did we not hear the question, we had no real sense of its importance. And more to the point, we had not done the footwork needed to develop the warning systems that could have answered this question accurately. The medical profession has developed early warning systems for things like heart disease, e.g. good and bad cholesterol readings, and even treatments that prevent problems from occurring once the early warning is tripped. But economists did not have any such apparatus in place prior to the crisis because we didn’t understand the importance of the question. With better connections to the people who were interested in the answer, and there were plenty of people asking if we were in a housing bubble, that might have changed. There’s no guarantee, of course, that even with more connections we would have responded with a set of reliable tests for bubbles and detected this particular instance – we’re certainly working on those now – but it would have improved the chances that we did.

Classroom Teaching

A final and often unrecognized benefit of blogging is that it improves classroom teaching. Blogging forces you to engage with the questions of the day, and this helps to relate economics to its real world applications, something that is often missing in economics courses. When students can see how the things they are learning apply to the real world, it enhances their receptiveness to the material and helps the ideas stick beyond the final exam.


Modern communications technology is forging new connections between academic economists, the public, policymakers, the press, economists outside of academia, and other academic disciplines in ways that were not possible in the past, and there is little doubt that these connections have increased in recent years.  The Great Disconnect is, hopefully, coming to an end.

We are still working out how blogs fit into academic economics, what professional mores ought to apply to blogging, how blogging relates to the academic mission of teaching, research, and service (including serving the public mission), how it should be viewed in tenure and promotion decisions, and so on. But this is a new endeavor for economists, and such questions are expected. We will get these things worked out over time. For now, however, there is plenty of room for optimism that new forms of communication will continue to enhance the public presence of economics in ways that provide mutual benefits to the profession and the public sphere.

Initiative on Academia & the Public Sphere

Economics & the Public Sphere: Teaching and Research Resources

[[1]] As discussed below, some authors trace this disconnect with public issues to the turn to marginalism in the 1870s. See Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2011). “Sickonomics: Diagnoses and Remedies.” Review of Social Economy 69:357-376; Reinert, Erik S. (2000) “Full Circle: Economics from Scholasticism through Innovation and back into Mathematical Scholasticism: Reflections on a 1769 Prize Essay: ‘Why is it that economics so far has gained so few advantages from physics and mathematics?’” Journal of Economic Studies 27:364-376.[[1]]

[[2]] For example, the claim that tax cuts pay for themselves used to justify tax reductions.[[2]]

[[3]] The phrase “the Great Disconnect” follows in the tradition within economics of calling any substantial and long-lived event “Great”, e.g. the Great Recession, the Great Moderation, the Great Price Inflation, the Great Depression, and so on.[[3]]

[[4]] For a book length treatment of this topic, see Bernstein, Michael A. (2001) A Perilous Progress: Economists and Public Purpose in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.[[4]]

[[5]] Bernstein, Michael A. (2005) “Reply to Critics.” The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 12:142-146; Bernstein, Michael A. (2001) A Perilous Progress: Economists and Public Purpose in Twentieth-Century America. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.[[5]]

[[6]] Even if you don’t believe the ties have weakened in recent decades, i.e. that economists retain the same ties to the public discourse they have always had, it’s still the case that the ties have strengthened recently – we are more engaged with outside groups than ever before – and new information technology has played an essential role in this development. Thus, the main theme of this essay that ties have strengthened recently is not dependent upon whether one agrees or disagrees with the Great Disconnect hypothesis.[[6]]

[[7]] Fine, Ben and Milonakis, Dimitris (2009) From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics: The Shifting Boundaries Between Economics and Other Social Sciences, London: Routledge; Milonakis, Dimitris and Fine, Ben (2009) From Political Economy to Economics: Method, the Social and the Historical in the Evolution of Economic Theory, London and New York: Routledge.[[7]]

[[8]] Thus, I agree with Hodgson (2011, pg. 4) when he says “I would date its full hegemony much later than the 1870s (especially considering the prominence of American institutionalism in the first half of the 20th century).”[[8]]

[[9]] Lawson, Tony (1997) Economics and Reality, London:  Routledge; Lawson, Tony (2006) ‘‘The Nature of Heterodox Economics,’’ Cambridge Journal of Economics 30(4): 483–505.[[9]]

[[10]] The quote is from Hodgson (2011, pg. 15).[[10]]

[[11]] Or, as Farrell and Sides put it, “Blogs can help identify interesting and relevant research. They can explain the basic findings of this research to the public. Finally, they can show how this research applies to contemporary problems.” (pg. 6). Farrell, Henry and Sides, John (2010) “Building a Political Science Public Sphere with Blogs,” The Forum: Vol. 8 : Iss. 3, Article 10.[[11]]

[[12]] Farrell and Sides (2010).[[12]]

[[13]] So I agree with Lawson (1997, 2006) on this particular point. See Hodgson (2011, pg. 14). Bernstein (2001, 2005) also views mathematical formalism as a key factor.[[13]]

[[14]] For example see Reinert (2000).[[14]]

[[15]] See Bernstein (2001, 2005).[[15]]

[[16]] And in many cases the questions being asked were purely theoretical in nature – i.e. basic rather than applied science – rather than questions of interest to policymakers and the public.[[16]]

[[17]] When speaking professionally, economists are trained to make only positive statements. Under the positive approach, an economist can say who the winners and losers of, say, a minimum wage policy might be – it increases the incomes of those with jobs but potentially reduces overall employment – and to give an indication of the relative magnitudes of the costs and benefits (e.g. that the negative employment effects seem small relative to the positive effects on income). But so long as the policy hurts anyone – if one person is hurt slightly but thousands are helped immensely – we avoid saying whether the policy is good or bad. Saying that it’s okay to hurt one person to help others is a value judgment – it’s a normative statement that professional economists shouldn’t be making. The test for us is whether everyone is better off, nobody worse off — if so then the policy can be supported (a concept related to Pareto optimality).[[17]]

[[18]] As Greg Mankiw explains, he used this phrase in the first edition of his principles textbook. It was intended to describe advisers of the Reagan administration who claimed that tax cuts would increase revenue.[[18]]

[[19]] This sociology begins in graduate school and is influenced heavily by how different jobs are viewed by faculty, and it’s no surprise that faculty might elevate academics over other choices.[[19]]

[[20]] For example, sometimes a model will have biased coefficient estimates but predict better out of sample than a model with unbiased estimates. Scientists interested in discovering the truth will prefer to use the model that eliminates bias while forecasters will choose the model that gives the best predictions.[[20]]

[[21]] With the exception of economists at the Federal Reserve actively engaged in what amounts to academic research.[[21]]

[[22]] Information technology has also enhanced communication within the profession and made geography much less important. For example, it’s now possible to co-author a paper with a colleague at another institution, or to read working papers of scholars in your area in ways that were not feasible prior to the rise of digital communications.[[22]]

[[23]] Blogs are far from the only way economists are reengaging. As one example of how the mission to educate has been enhanced, all of my undergraduate courses are recorded and uploaded to YouTube. The videos attract viewers from all over the world, and the interest is particularly acute in developing countries where access to education is difficult.[[23]]

[[24]] Sometimes, as in my own case, a desire to create ties outside of academia was part of the motivation behind the decision to begin blogging. I was unhappy with how economic issues were presented in the media in the run-up to the Bush reelection, and a desire to try to correct the errors I was hearing in the media is a key reason I started blogging. I was not alone in wanting to weigh in and correct what I was hearing in the press.[[24]]

[[25]] Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabborak at Marginal Revolution, Stephen Gordon at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, Adam Samwick’s blog, and Kash at Angry Bear followed shortly thereafter by Jim Hamilton and Menzie Chinn at econbrowser and John Whitehead and Tim Haab at Environmental Economics are examples (by no means exhaustive) of academic economics blogs that existed at that time.[[25]]

[[26]] Economics blogs are not identified by any particular marker, and there is no easy way to tell the blog of an academic from other blogs discussing economics without inspecting each and every one, and even then anonymity creates uncertainty. However, as an active daily participant in the econoblogoshere since February of 2005, I can attest to the robust growth. The demand for information about economics was particularly high during the financial crisis and subsequent recession, and as you would expect this led to the entry of a large number of new academic bloggers.[[26]]

[[27]] The number of positions is not huge, but they do exist and the number of positions is increasing over time.[[27]]

[[28]] Farrell and Sides (2010).[[28]]

[[29]] When I first started, a colleague took me aside and, in essence told me I should stop because I would never get any credit for it within the Department. Fortunately that advice turned out to be wrong, but at the time it was probably the right advice to give.[[29]]

[[30]] Farrell and Sides (2010, pg. 2).[[30]]

[[31]] At least, that’s my experience.[[31]]

[[32]] Many, many of the press inquiries I get now (and I got practically zero before blogging) come as a result of reporters reading what I have to say about a topic on my blog first (often through a search engine such as Google), and then deciding they want to learn more about it. Others are daily visitors who read what is written on the blog to help to stay informed, and follow up with email and phone calls when they have questions.[[32]]

[[33]] For example, I have been issued press credentials at the Milken Global Conference, the conferences held by The Institute for New Economic Thinking, and the Nobel Laureates Meeting in Lindau, Germany.[[33]]

[[34]] An example is the Kauffman Foundation’s annual Bloggers Forum.[[34]]

[[35]] Treasury, White House, and other government agencies now hold blogger conference calls.[[35]]

[[36]] I have been contacted by several members of Congress for policy advice, and met with their staffs to discuss policy issues. This has happened at the state level as well.[[36]]

[[37]] For example, bank stress tests were constructed on the fly, and because of that were not as effective as they might have been with more time to think about how to do this type of analysis.[[37]]

[[38]] During the crisis, my traffic approximately doubled on days when there were new events or new data, and traffic spikes remain a good indication of uncertainty over the latest news about the economy.[[38]]

[[39]] Thoma, Mark. 2011. “A Great Divide Holds Back the Relevance of Economists.” Reuters. July 26.[[39]]

Social Science Research Council - One Pierrepont Plaza, 15th Floor | Brooklyn, NY 11201 USA | P: 212.377.2700 | F: 212.377.2727 | E: